Retractions Everywhere

Watchdog websites like Retraction Watch are not going out of business any time soon. It seems like there has been an uptick in the number of retractions in the peer-reviewed literature recently. Some have been high profile blunders, like the STAP stem cells case, while most are minor papers with issues of reproducibility, double-dipping, or image doctoring.

(See here for a New York Times article highlighting some of the most high-profile retractions in the last twenty years.)

There are three responses to the influx of retractions:

  • Fraud and misconduct have always happened; we’re just better at catching it.
  • The problem is in academia’s emphasis on “publish-or-perish.”
  • This is an example of how science polices itself.

Some people believe that poor research practices have always happened. The apparent increase in retractions is only because we are better at uncovering them. Internet access allows for greater accessibility to academic journals, thanks, in part, to people petitioning for partial or full open access. Additionally, plagiarism software has become more sophisticated and is able to find material that may have come from obscure journals or material written before the internet. Just this past week Retraction Watch reported a paper that was published twice in a particular journal, and another that lifted material from a book written in 1952 without citing the copied paragraphs.

Other people think the problem lies in academia. Rather than the objective scientist pursuing research that is for the betterment of mankind, the self-interested academic pursues job security in the form of tenure. The cynics’ description of academia reads like it is the world’s most onerous real-life RPG where the point is to accumulate academic credentials through publications, build charisma among peers, pursue side quests in the form of teaching classes and attending meetings, and collect manna in the form of grants. Winning the game involves an ultimate boss fight with the tenure committee. Publishing papers is just part of the game. The number of papers, rather than the quality, is often a metric used to measure tenure eligibility.

Still others, taking a more positive view, see the influx of retractions as evidence of how science polices itself. However, this self-policing was originally intended to occur non-publically during the peer review, pre-publication phase, rather than after publication. Politics, the media, and celebrity scientists have brought about high-profile blunders that could have been avoided if the publications and the reviewers had taken more time in the peer review process.

Perhaps the influx of retractions is due to a combination of all of these. The reality is that good science that is done ethically is going to take time. Also, scientists are human beings and sometimes they make mistakes. To expect perfection, even a perfect peer review process, is unreasonable. While lying, fraud, and misconduct ought to be punished, a mistake that is handled well by all parties involved is a different story.

To end on a good note, here is a story of a retraction that was handled properly. Researchers discovered that a published paper overestimated a statistic about divorce among heterosexual couples after the wife falls ill. They were trying to replicate the results for a study on people over the age of fifty, but could not replicate them. They contacted the authors, who gave the researchers their statistical files. It turns out there was a single line of code that was wrong. It categorized people who had left the study as “divorced.” The authors of the original paper promptly alerted the publication and re-tested their data. They were commended for how they took responsibility for the error and sought to rectify it.